Why The Electricity Grid Is Like A Football Team

And how energy managers may be picking the wrong squad.

football stadium

Photo by Thomas Serer on Unsplash

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to put together a championship-winning football (or soccer, as some wrongly call it) team?

If you’re a manager (coach) at the top level, the stakes are incredibly high; how you perform makes you either hero or villain with millions of fans and determines whether your team gets the next major sponsorship deal.

A football team is made up of a “starting eleven”, plus some players on the bench, upto three of whom can be substituted for players on the field during a match. The manager must pick a team that is simultaneously powerful in attack, resilient in defence and able to dominate in midfield.

Each player has their strengths and weaknesses. Some players are consistent performers that won’t let the side down. Others are flakey prima donnas who skip training and inexplicably give the ball away when they’re having an off-day. A good manager knows how to create a balanced team that draws out the best in everyone.

Like trying to win the league, putting together an electricty system (electricity team, if you like) that keeps the lights on and costs down is hard — and getting harder. Like the fairplay awards for the teams with the least red and yellow cards, we’re now asking our electricty team to “play fair” to our planet by being low-carbon, too.

What kinds of players are available?

When putting together our electricity football team, we get to choose from a range of player types:

  • Hydro —fairly reliable, somewhat old-fashioned technique, not many on the market these days, typical holding midfielder
  • Gas — flexible, quickly moves into gaps when they appear, ideal winger or attacker, somewhat dirty but generally escapes criticism, lack of home-grown capability has led to reliance on foreign imports
  • Coal — cheap and dirty, not pretty but gets the job done, typically goalkeeper and defence roles
  • Nuclear — reliable, experienced in goal, defence and midfield, younger players also in attack, unglamorous but clean player, unusual style offputting to some people, has bad reputation but their stats tell a different story
  • Solar — fan favourite, photogenic, prima donna, clean player but gets annoyed if not in starting eleven, wildcard but good substitute when on form, terrible in night-time matches, suffers from seasonal affective disorder
  • Wind — another fan favourite, clean technique, breaks up play and causes problems for traditional playing styles, goes through periods of poor performance (sometimes for weeks at a time)
  • Geothermal —full points for style, solid and reliable, plays clean, little on the expensive side, hard to come by outside of Iceland
  • Biomass — fairly reliable, highly controversial style, uses techniques that are likely to be banned in future rule changes, chain smoker
  • Tidal and wave — both promising but struggle to make the first squad, may annoy dolphins

Those are the types of players. Now, for the squad selection.

Picking the perfect energy squad

No two managers are the same. Every manager wants to win the league, but all have different ideas about how to do it. Some managers are blessed with resources and have access to all the player types. Others must work with a more restricted selection, either because certain players are hard to come by in their country, or because the club’s owners have created rules that ban them.

It’s exactly the same when picking an electricity team — some countries have access to endless hydro, while others are literally deserts. Some are able to deploy nuclear, while others have banned it outright.

Despite that, all managers know that every team must start with a solid defence. In the energy space, this usually means having a good chunk of either coal, gas, nuclear or hydro (or biomass, but best not to shout about that). These players form the reliable backbone of any championship winning side. If the manager picks them, they’ll deliver, week in, week out.

Some managers are attracted to the visually-appealing style and popularity of wind and solar, and recruit a few players to their team. When solar and wind are on form, they play a good, clean game, and everyone is happy. When they’re “under the weather” though, solar and wind can be a liability. But if they only make up a small part of the squad, the manager just picks some other players and everything is OK.

Letting down the side

The problem comes when the manager — enjoying the fan support and new sponsorship that solar and wind have attracted — goes out and buys more of these players. When solar and wind start to make up a significant proportion of the squad, strange things start to happen.

Imagine solar and wind go through one of their “down” days and they don’t turn up to training. This is like when solar and wind underperform at times of low demand; the manager is annoyed but, as it’s not a “proper match”, they can deal with it.

The problem comes on match day (peak demand) when solar and wind still haven’t got their mojo back. It doesn’t matter how much money they offer solar and wind, there’s no way to make them turn up for work.

The manager starts to panic; they don’t have enough players to field a full team! They scramble around for players they might borrow from other teams (electricity imports). Maybe they can field eleven players with no substitutes — if a player gets injured, they’ll be in big trouble (low capacity reserve). The manager gets out the energy drinks (batteries) to give the rest of the team a boost, but it’s not enough to get them through the full match.

There are also days when solar and wind are feeling just great. All of the solar and wind players turn up for work. Unfortunately, the manager made the team sign some rather strange contracts. Before each match, each player must say the price they’re willing to play for, with the lowest bids winning. With so many solar and wind players keen to play, this drives down the pay all the players receive (zero marginal cost energy). The managers also added a rule that means solar and wind players always get priority for the starting eleven (grid priority).

So when all the wind and solar players turn up expecting to play, this forces the reliable players out of the team, or at least brings down what they get paid to play. This leaves the other players pretty annoyed, as you might expect! They’ve been delivering week in, week out, but now these new guys are unfairly undercutting them. To add insult to injury, the contract also says the manager must pay solar and wind even if there’s not a space in the squad (curtailment).

The thing is, the reliable players know that next week solar and wind might disappear again, and the manager will be back begging them to play. The reliable players start to wonder whether it’s worth it, or if they should just hang up their boots forever (premature closures of firm capacity).

Build your own team

Let’s start by imagining a team called “Club Francais”, where three quarters of the squad are nuclear players. While space has been made for the crowdpleasing solar and wind, most the players are pretty reliable. There are some gas and coal players to fill any gaps. As Club Francais’ players are mostly nuclear, it is also a low-carbon team (give yourselves a round of applause).

club francais

The reliable players make up most the team, so only a few substitutes are needed.

Now let’s imagine another team called FC Deutschland. By the end of 2022, the manager of FC Deutschland will effectively ban nuclear, so they won’t be able to pick some of their best players these last 40 years. Sigh.

FC Deutschland has instead invested in the world’s highest profile solar and wind megastars — the fans have very high hopes! When solar and wind are feeling it, FC Deutschland can put out a strong, low-carbon team:

good day Deutschland

If the weather behaves, this team can put together a strong side. However, the reliable players are sidelined.

Take a look at the substitutes’ bench though: because the manager has signed so many solar and wind players, they’ve had to grow the size of their squad significantly compared to Club Francais. All those coal and gas players have to be kept on the bench just in case they’re needed. Despite the owner’s support for solar and wind initially, they’re now looking at the wage bill and feeling a little concerned.

Now let’s look at when solar and wind are having an off-week:

bad day Deutschland

When the weather won’t play along, the manager has to call up those gas and coal players — there’s simply no other option. The game must go on. Carbon emissions come second to fielding a full squad.

Dodgy managers everywhere

This dodgy team selection isn’t limited to Europe. The United States has similar problems. Many of the clubs (grid operators) are banning or limiting the use of nuclear. Other clubs have bonuses for being low-carbon but then bizarrely only give them to renewable players and not nuclear ones. Coal’s dirty tactics make gas look angelic, so those guys are being signed left, right and centre. What climate crisis?

How to win the league

If you’re putting together an energy team and want to win the championship, here’s what you should do:

Pick a group of players that complement each other. Build a strong defence using players that are reliable, affordable and low-carbon. Sure, include some crowd-pleasing solar and wind players — they work as great substitutes for dirty gas and coal players. But your team must provide season-long, consistent performance if you want to win the league.

football pitch

Photo by Izuddin Helmi Adnan on Unsplash

Written on October 21, 2021